Selling Plasma for Money

This morning I woke up at 5 for the third time this week. I ate breakfast and wrote in the dark, fumbled on some jeans, and got in my car. I wasn’t going to work, at least not for a few more hours. I was headed to the plasma clinic to “donate” for the second time.

The clinic opens at 6, at least during the Christmas season. Regular hours begin at 7 a.m. I’m not sure that they open earlier now because of Christmas, but it seems connected. Do more people sell their plasma at holiday time to offset the high cost of this time of year? I haven’t asked yet, but I might.

I’m the third person in the door this morning, and check-in goes smoothly for the first time. I’ve come each morning this week when the clinic opens, and each morning so far, something has been wrong. They need to wait for an external test the first day; can I hang around for three hours until the other clinic opens? No. The second day, they need to wait for a supervisor’s signature, but she doesn’t get in until 8. Can I wait? No. If I could not give plasma today, I told myself I would give up. I’d find something else to do for a little bit of easy money. Fortunately today worked out, and I came out an hour later, 50 dollars richer.

“Donations” are paid on a scale. The first donation pays 55 dollars; the most any one donation will ever pay. The second donation is 50, sort of a hook to make sure you come back. After that the first donation of the week pays 25 dollars and the second donation of the week pays 30 dollars. You can only donate twice in one week, and must wait at least one day in between. But 55 dollars each week translates to 220 extra dollars at the end of the month, if you go as often as you are permitted. And 220 dollars is nothing to sneeze at. Neither are 50 or 25 when it comes to that, especially not for an hour’s reading time. Today I read Thinking, Fast and Slow. Boyfriend and I are reading it together. He’s much further along than I am, but I expect with a couple of uninterrupted hours each week, I’ll catch up.

If I am not able to donate, it will be because of my iron levels. The two times I have donated before my iron has been at a 38%, the minimum allowable. “Take iron pills, eat spinach,” the clinician tells me today. Over time with consistent donation, iron levels drop. This week, I have doubled up on my multivitamins, avoided tea, coffee and alcohol, and eaten iron rich plants, but as a vegetarian, keeping acceptable iron and protein levels is going to take work. Fortunately, I should probably be eating more iron and protein anyway. Unfortunately, it might not be enough.

The clinic is clean. The clinicians check for injection marks at every appointment, but I can’t tell who is or is not selling their plasma for drugs, as the urban stereotype goes. The clients are mostly men, mostly minorities. I wonder what the other clients are there for, just a little extra money like me, enough to make ends meet. I wonder if this is their primary means of income. Who is on food stamps? Who is on disability? I wonder about their stories. If you come often enough and consistently on the same days, you start to know people, I can already tell. The men greet each other by name, with half a hug or a pat on the back. They are glad to see each other, glad to see some of the clinicians too. The clinicians are mostly women, predominately of south-east Asian and Filipino decent, I would guess. They are middle-aged, kind and professional.

I’m selling plasma to save some extra money for H.’s wedding next fall. If I can save an extra $200 each month, I should be able to pay all of the associated expenses—airfare, lodging, dress, shoes, etc.—with ease. At least, I hope so. So after I donate, I transfer amount I was paid from my checking account to my savings account, and I use the prepaid card to buy groceries instead of using my debit card. It all comes out in the wash.

Everyone, from the clinicians to the instructional video, refer to plasmapheresis as “donating” plasma, even though everyone is there to get paid. But the economic exchange is avoided. No one hands me an envelope of cash, no bills are exchanged. At the end of my first donation, the clinician gave me a prepaid Visa card. All payments would be made to this card, so don’t lose it, he said. It can be used just like a credit card, but avoid using it as a debit card or withdrawing money from an ATM because the fees are high.  I don’t even have to pull out my card; the money is automatically loaded and I can check the balance by calling a toll-free number when I get home.

I avoid mentioning the money too. To explain why I was up early yesterday, I told a friend I was donating, not the truer fact that I was selling. I suppose there is a stigma, a little bit of shame there, and a desire to protect one’s privacy. No one needs to know that I sell plasma instead of donating blood (but now I’ve written it for the world to see), but why not? There is nothing wrong or illegal about it. I suppose using the term “selling” instead of “donating” acknowledges that I am not doing this purely out of the goodness of my heart, no matter how much the clinic talks about the “life-saving medicines” that my plasma will make. They could be making dog food with it, and I’d probably still sell. Using the term “selling” acknowledges that I don’t have “enough.” And even if it’s for a reason, like a trip next year, it still feels awkward. We like to pretend, I think, that we don’t do things because of money. It is harder to say, “no, I can’t afford to go to that,” than to say “I have other plans,” even if my other plans are to stay home and save my money. But it’s nice too, to know that I’m putting something aside for the future, so that when the time comes, I can spend the money without feeling guilty.

It’s been an interesting first week, and we’ll have to see how long it lasts, depending on my iron levels.

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